The Future for Lay People in the Catholic Church Part II – Can we Implement Vatican II?

Group-shot-at-launch-Living-CommmunionOn Monday I blogged about a talk in Belfast’s Clonard Monastery by Dr Richard Gaillardetz, McCarthy Professor of Catholic Systematic Theology at Boston College. Gaillardetz’s topic was the future for lay people in the Catholic Church. He spent most of his time outlining the basis for greater lay participation in all aspects of the life of the church, basing his conclusions on the gospels and the documents of Vatican II.

But the discussion after the talk revealed people’s frustrations.

Many felt that the theory of Vatican II has not impacted on many actual practices in the Catholic Church. Among the questions asked were:

Why hasn’t the church implemented this?

Why haven’t more people heard this?

What are we supposed to do about this?

Gaillardetz didn’t have definitive answers to these questions – I suppose none of us do.

But Gaillardetz asked us to reflect on ‘the enormity of what Vatican II accomplished,’ pointing out that the sheer volume of documents produced by the Council dwarfs those produced by other councils. It follows from this that with so much to do, it is going to take quite a long time to work on all the areas of church life that need work.

Gaillardetz added that although there were many words in these documents, there were very few specific instructions about how to implement change.

In fact, most of the specific instructions (more than 50) came in the area of liturgy, where the effects of Vatican II are most obvious to the casual observer. After all, we wouldn’t have the ‘folk mass’ without Vatican II!

Structures that could facilitate greater lay involvement in the church, such as parish pastoral councils and diocesan synods, are not mandated by Vatican II. And while bishops are now expected to regularly visit parishes, it doesn’t mean that they necessarily listen to people living their faith on the ground.

It is my sense that Ireland lags behind other Western nations, particularly the United States, when it comes to promoting parish pastoral councils and inviting the input of laypeople in other aspects of church life.

There also seems to be very little adult education around how spiritual practices such as prayer and the Eucharist should aid people in living ethically beyond the walls of the church.

The Irish Catholic Bishops Conference took a positive step in inviting Gaillardetz to address their three-day National Pastoral Conference called ‘Communion and Co-responsibility in the Church’, held 13-14 September in Athlone. About 200 people (half lay) were reported to have attended the conference.

There, Gaillardetz spoke on Vatican II as a model for the Church; communion and co-responsibility in the Church; mission and discipleship; and, ministry today. Other initiatives, like the Diocese of Down and Conor’s Living Church, are promising – but in their early stages.

But it’s not clear to me that most Irish Catholics know about these initiatives, or are encouraged to get involved in them.

At the end of the conversation, Gaillardetz had left us with very few concrete suggestions about how the Catholic Church in Ireland could make greater progress in implementing Vatican II. But I think that we could start groping towards some answers by reflecting on the language in the first question posed above:

Why hasn’t the church implemented this?

In referring to the church, it could be construed that people are waiting for representatives from the institution – bishops, priests, etc, to start doing something. This may not be an unreasonable expectation, but it could be a long wait.

In fact, what Gaillardetz had been saying all night was that all the baptised are the church. So rather than simply critiquing representatives from the ‘institution,’ ask yourself that third question:

What are we supposed to do about this?

Gaillardetz added that each baptised Christian is ‘called’ to do something, to make the church the church that it is supposed to be. Are we listening?

(Image: the launch of the Irish Catholic Bishops Conference’s document, ‘Living Communion: Vision and Practice for Parish Pastoral Councils in Ireland Today’)

One thought on “The Future for Lay People in the Catholic Church Part II – Can we Implement Vatican II?”

  1. I am grateful for your comments on the lecture – I had considered going but felt the need for something more reflective and “soul” full so I went instead to Fitzroy Presbyterian which met that need. One of the parishioners in St Oliver Plunkett Parish keeps making a similar point to yours – the content of many of the documents is very good but aspirational – but she often ask “how do we translate it into parish life?”

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